1-28-01, 9:50 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
NEW ORLEANS __The last time we saw these Patriots, Bengals linebacker Adrian Ross was virtually chasing New England quarterback Drew Bledsoe out of Paul Brown Stadium in the final minute of Cincinnati's' decisive 23-17 Opening Day victory.
But on Monday, it was the Patriots who arrived here for Super Bowl XXXVI flush off an AFC championship season that began and ended so improbably. While Patriots wide receiver Troy Brown bathed in the pre-dawn Super Bowl hype and explained how his teammates thought Cincinnati would have a good year after that day at PBS, Bengals right tackle Willie Anderson spent a sixth straight Super Bowl week at home watching a team the Bengals outgained by 61 yards, outrushed by 89 yards, and outscored by 13 points in the game's last 32:16 back on Sept. 9.
When things were different for a lot of reasons.
"I just hope we don't get fooled by pulling out those last two games against Pittsburgh and Tennessee," Anderson said of the victories that gave the Bengals a 6-10 record.
"When you have a seven-game slide like we did in the middle of the year, something is wrong," Anderson said. "The time you have to win games is when the Patriots won their games. We started out 2-0; they started out (0-2). When we started losing, we kept saying, 'It's OK, we're still in the middle of the pack,' and then we couldn't get out of it."
The Patriots came from back in the pack despite going with backup quarterback Tom Brady after Bledsoe's internal injuries. Until Bledsoe came off the bench Sunday in Pittsburgh to relieve Brady and get no-frills New England into the Super Bowl for the second time in five years without a dominant MVP candidate.
"They threw it well, they passed it well, they defended well. They flat out beat us," said Brown, who tested the Bengals all day with 106 yards on seven catches. "We thought they had a pretty good team. They came back the next week and beat Baltimore and that really opened our eyes. 'This team was pretty good.' Maybe they got full of themselves and they thought they were better than they really were. Then they started going downhill from there. They were really playing well the first couple of weeks of the season. What we had to do was learn how to finish a game. It told us we weren't as good as we thought we were. We got up early on them a few times (7-0, 10-3), but we couldn't finish the game. We're finishing games now."
The Patriots started to go uphill when head coach/defensive guru Bill Belichick was able to prepare for offenses off tape and his 17 additions to the roster had time to jell. The balanced Bengals stung the Pats on quarterback Jon Kitna's 204 passing yards and running back Corey Dillon's 104 yards. On Sunday, the Pats stuffed Pittsburgh's NFL best rush offense on 58 yards.
"We showed some things in the running game and passing game that they hadn't seen us do in the preseason and I'm sure that helped," said Bengals offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski. 'We did some
different things running the ball and it was the type of thing they probably didn't expect us to do because it was early in the year. There's no question that Bill is one of the best guys I've gone against. He does a great job not only adjusting from a half to a half, but he changes series to series."
On Sept. 9, Kitna saw up close one of Belichick's staples. He'll make sure he takes away one part of the game in order to make an offense one dimensional. Belichick decided to let Kitna, and not Dillon, beat him.
Kitna made the two throws he had to make in the third quarter with a 25-yard touchdown pass to tight end Tony McGee and a 34-yard bomb to wide receiver Darnay Scott.
"When the season goes on, that's when Belichick starts beating you," Kitna said. "He does a great job at game planning against quarterbacks. I think he didn't want me to beat them, so I was able to hit some deep passes. That's what he'll try to do. He'll try to take something away."
But the soul of the Patriots' renaissance turned out to be the heart of a veteran team that didn't take an 0-2 start to heart.
"Well, the next week Cincinnati went out and beat Baltimore," said New England linebacker Tedy Bruschi. "I don't think you can be surprised when any team beats you in the NFL now. You never know what type of team you're going to get from year to year and things change.
"We had such an influx of free agents and new signees coming in off the offseason. I think it took a little more time than training camp to get used to each other. As we started to get used to each other, we became more comfortable next to each other on the field and the victories ended up showing up."
When the Bengals came to Cincinnati, a Patriots' Opening Day win and a Kennedy family candidacy were the two surest fall bets in New England. But cornerback Ty Law, a veteran of the last Super Bowl team, didn't get shook when the Pats got skewered the Monday morning after as a season's lost cause.
"You can never judge a season by the first game or two," Law said. "I did this in '96. I was very optimistic. I knew that with the type of training camp we had, we were not going (to start fast). Once we got together, there was no turning back."
Pro Bowl strong safety Lawyer Milloy thought the Bengals, "were going to finish a lot better than they did. They came out ready to go." But he also walked out of PBS with some hope.
"We were underachieving. I don't think we knew how good we could be," Milloy said. "I think we were still trying to get used to so many new faces. That was a part of it. And we just didn't play well."
Which is what Kitna hopes his team takes away from this Super Bowl in which they see a team they beat back when it all started 147 days before the big game.
"That's what I try to stress," Kitna said. "In this league, you can't get down or get a feeling of hopelessness. One play can turn around a season. In 30 seconds, things can change."
Both teams from Sept. 9 have lived it.